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Bookworm: ‘The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man’ not that kind of memoir

No hogwash, straight facts, emotions, and a near-total lack of varnish

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist
Early photo of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, who are profiled in the new HBO Max docuseries "The Last Movie Stars."

“The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man”

  • By Paul Newman
  • c. 2022, Knopf
  • $32, 320 pages

The eyes must’ve been two feet tall. And they were looking right at you. For a minute, you imagined that they were following you as you sat eating buttery popcorn in a darkened room. And that was your introduction to the work of a man you loved more with every movie he made. Now meet Paul Newman in his memoir, “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man” and follow him.

In the fall of 1986, Paul Newman sat down with “a dear friend” and they began a series of recordings of Newman’s thoughts on his life. Volunteers and family made transcripts and the project grew, then disappeared when he died in 2008.

In 2019, it was found, and the family decided “to finish what was started.”

Newman began his story with surprising bitterness. His family was well-to-do, but the sounds of “constant warfare” filled the home; his father seemed trapped in a life he didn’t want, his mother was a “suspicious” person. Newman “began to feel like an outcast.”

“The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man” by Paul Newman.

It didn’t help that he was scrawny as a teen and was obsessed with girls. That preoccupation continued when he was drafted and entered the Navy. He came home from World War II with romantic experience, and immediately enrolled at a non-coed college, which he says was a mistake. It reignited his obsession with women.

It was there that he auditioned for a part in a play and discovered acting.

Readers will have to look hard to find any bragging in this book, which is refreshing but also rather curious: Newman-the-heartthrob was reticent about the details of his love life. Still, he shares keen memories of meeting and falling in love with Joann Woodward when he was still married to a woman he loved and respected. He had children with that woman, but “Joanne gave birth to a sexual creature.”

Fame, for Newman, was “a dream and a nightmare at the same time.” He admired the steely professionalism of Elizabeth Taylor; loved being a parent but seemed slightly baffled by it; drank too much, and he knew it. And, surprisingly, he said, “I never enjoyed acting.”

In an undated image provided via Knopf, Paul Newman.

To say that “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man” is like eavesdropping on your favorite celebrity isn’t going far enough. This book is like having drinks in an overseas pub with him, and he doesn’t think you know who he is.

An unguarded attitude is apparent from the very beginning of author Paul Newman’s part of this book; there are other points-of-view scattered about here, but Newman is the star. In his own words, we get a story, nothing glossy, no hogwash, straight facts, emotions, and a near-total lack of varnish that’s shocking in its nakedness. That’s something you don’t expect in a book about Hollywood.

Also don’t expect unnecessary names in “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man,” because it’s not that kind of memoir. It’s humble, but honest; charming, with an I-don’t-care-what-you-think attitude. And if you’re wondering if you’d like that kind of book, the ayes have it.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Read past columns at marconews.com.